Avengers: Endgame is right around the corner, promising big, thrilling spectacles and an emotional send-off for some of our favorite heroes. To say the marketing has been vague would be a galactic understatement, and as much as we’ve looked over every scrap of detail for clues and theories, the truth is that most of us are going in without any idea of what to expect.
The cast and crew have been more tight-lipped than ever on the movie’s press tour, and as a result, about all we actually do know is that the film is set to be the end of an era. The culmination of 22 movies and the closing of this chapter of franchise movies will finally bring real stakes to a series that has long struggled to do so. But—to paraphrase the God of Thunder himself—”is it, though?” Because, honestly, it’s hard not to feel as though we’ve been here before.
Looking back to 2015, the marketing for Avengers: Age of Ultron put significant emphasis on doomsday proclamations and blunt foreshadowing, with ominous lines like “I got no plans tomorrow night.” And the resulting film, despite being one of the most unique entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, isn’t all that consequential in the long run. New characters are introduced, one of whom is quickly killed off, and a whole lot of table-setting is done for future movies, but it wasn’t exactly the earth-shattering sequel we’d been sold in the trailers. The various pieces of the larger puzzle are moved around, but not in a genuinely meaningful way, which can be said for a lot of these movies.
A part of this is down to what video essayist Patrick Willems identifies as the “illusion of change,” whereby change appears to be taking place on the surface, but it ultimately rings hollow upon closer inspection. Exciting new story elements introduced at the end of these movies often just get waved off at the beginning of the next one, maintaining the status quo for our characters and the world around them.
For example, the Sokovia Accords threatened to alter how superheroes could operate in this universe, but they’re quickly forgotten the next time our heroes are faced with a new villain. Likewise, the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier seemed like a dramatic turn of events, although a look back reveals that the organization was never more than a background player, to begin with, and thus their collapse had little to no effect on what came after. The series effectively scrubs its hands of the whole HYDRA threat in the opening of Age of Ultron, which can’t help but deflate what initially felt like a show-stopping twist. And yes, it’s worth mentioning that HYDRA plays a much larger role in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., giving the show a much-needed burst of energy that helped it become what it is today. But is it too much to ask for developments in the movies to actually affect the movies themselves?
It all comes down to the idea that the more things change, the more they stay the same, which brings us to Avengers: Infinity War. The movie that killed half of its main characters in one snap of the fingers, leaving our remaining heroes in a state of despair. But, as people were quick to call attention to, not only did Infinity War effectively give itself an out — making a point to remind viewers of the Time Stone’s ability to resurrect the dead —but also made some conspicuous choices when it came to who was killed off. After all, it was difficult for audiences to really buy that Marvel was willing to make ashes of new favorites like Black Panther and Spider-Man.
This time, Marvel had outdone themselves, with an ending so enormously cataclysmic that you couldn’t help but immediately think how they’re going to undo it. So what does all this mean for Endgame? Well, from what we can gather from various clips and TV spots, the plot of the movie revolves around the remaining Avengers tracking down Thanos and using his own trick against him. Effectively reversing the fateful snap and using it to bring back the fallen heroes, in a move that will potentially get some or all of the original gang killed.
And while it makes sense that the team would have a plan of action to get back at Thanos, the blunt admission of this possibility sets a potentially concerning precedent. Because if even the characters themselves aren’t treating death as final, why should the audience? Despite the necessities of ongoing franchises, the ending of Infinity War still stands up as a startling jolt to the system. Seeing these heroes, whom we’ve all invested significant time on, die in such a quietly creepy way, while the others can only look on in horror, is haunting stuff. But a disconnect forms when death is treated as something easily reversed by a MacGuffin.
This is not a new problem (and the idea of what death means in the MCU has been discussed at length elsewhere), but it’s one that we’re forced to consider more than ever as we head into the endgame. If the original Avengers are sacrificed to bring back the new team, what’s preventing them from being brought back, maybe not immediately but at some point down the line? Because whether or not the Time Stone makes it out intact, it’s difficult to put the cat back in the bag when it comes to resurrecting the dead.
And while this may be our last chance to see the original six together, Black Widow is set to get her own (long overdue) movie, Hawkeye is heading to Disney+, and there’s even word of another Thor movie in the near future. Even if any of these are prequels, set before the events of Endgame, the question of how final death is in an interconnected cinematic universe becomes even more important. Both Vision and Loki are confirmed to star in their own Disney+ series, despite both dying pre-snap in Infinity War, and as enticing as those may sound, the fact that we can go on seeing their adventures has a way of lessening their sacrifices. Now, a dead character appearing in a prequel might not technically break the rules, but a part of it does feel like a narrative cheat, whereby anybody can be brought back at any time.
So really, what does closure even mean for an MCU where even the dead get their own TV shows? Well, as of now, we don’t really know. For all its various strengths and weaknesses, one thing the franchise has never had to deal with is bringing a definitive end to any of its major characters. Supporting players have come and gone, but at this point, we’ve grown almost accustomed to the idea of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers being around forever. Even fan-favorite Agent Coulson was back on the small screen with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (and later in prequel form in Captain Marvel) only a year after his pivotal death in The Avengers.
While movies like Iron Man 3 have tried to offer a sense of closure, in that case with Tony blowing up all his suits, the workings of the franchise prevented them from having any long term impact. Just two years after this big gesture, he’s upgraded the Iron Legion and still has a new Iron Man suit for every occasion. In hindsight, what does Iron Man 3‘s ending really mean, beyond a nice sentiment at the time? Tony’s obsessions still manifested in a world-destroying A.I., and it wasn’t until Captain America: Civil War that he began to face up to his mistakes.
This time there is a difference, however, as a handful of cast members—such as Chris Evans, who’s openly said goodbye to his character—have reached the end of their contracts. While the MCU has previously run into similar issues as the comics, when it comes to maintaining the status quo, they’re now forced to make their biggest shift yet—saying goodbye to the old Avengers and making way for the new generation of heroes. What closure means for these movies changes when they have no choice but to evolve, and hopefully, they’re ready to deliver on that.
But where a movie like The Dark Knight Rises could offer a definitive end to its story, the show must go on for Marvel. And a concern is that, like Age of Ultron, this movie could get weighed down by set up and lose sight of itself. For Endgame, with its three-hour runtime, there may be no shortage of time to get all this done, but closing one door while opening others is no easy task in such a gargantuan blockbuster. Whether they can learn from their mistakes and push forward, we’ll find out later this week.
One thing that is worth highlighting before Endgame, however, is a time where Marvel didn’t cop out—Yondu’s death in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. His death not only came as the culmination of a character arc, but was also treated with the kind of emotional honesty rarely seen in these movies. His sacrifice even had a significant effect on other characters’ journeys, namely Peter Quill and Rocket Raccoon, proving that there can be more to these than the mindless spectacle they’ve come to be dismissed as. And showing that the MCU is prepared to pull the trigger when necessary and can do so in a meaningful and impactful way.
All things considered then, should we be expecting Endgame to offer definitive closure for all these characters? Will future table-setting, such as the formation of the New Avengers, overshadow or distract from their swansong? And how definitive can any ending be in the age of the multimedia cinematic universe? It’s hard to say just yet, and Marvel’s track record here has been mixed. Endgame will certainly have its work cut out to answer all these questions, balance all these expectations, and offer something satisfying to fans who’ve invested so long in this story. Something that doesn’t merely pay lip service to the idea of closing a chapter and actually makes good on its promises.
This is Marvel’s big chance to go big, to make something with genuine stakes and go beyond the illusion of change. And while the reality is that many of these characters will continue existing in some form, the Avengers as we know them will likely (and hopefully) never be the same again, as we head into a new chapter where anything and everything is possible.